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Reach For The Stars (no, not that far)

So Dame Shirley Bassey thinks women shouldn’t be police officers or pilots because of hormones and periods. And because it’s not feminine. Former police officer Christine Townsend (WHO ALSO WEARS DRESSES and LK Bennett heels) begs to differ.

How Christine might have reacted if Dame Shirley had tried to question her career choices.

How Christine might have reacted to Dame Shirley questioning her career choices.

I vaguely recall a time, worse for wear, of being stood in a karaoke bar, thinking I was the Diamond Diva herself and slurring loudly, “The minute you walk in the joint…

Most of us have been there, singing along to Shirley Bassey, all misplaced lipgloss and putting the world to rights.

However, Bassey’s tune appears to have gone more off-key than I ever did. In a surprising ‘media outburst’ she declared that women shouldn’t try to be cleverer or even as clever as men by being police officers, pilots or soldiers because we’re not built for it. We should stick to being feminine.

Funny, because just six hours before those aforementioned karaoke attempts to be a camp Welsh (now decamped to Monaco) gay icon, I’d been chatting with the girls from work. We’d been talking about the usual stuff: clothes, what was on telly, holidays, whether we should be armed with guns at work.

That’s right… guns. Us girls all worked in the police. We also talked about how annoying it is that you can’t have gels done on your nails because it doesn’t look right to turn up to a fatal crash with bright pink nails so you ‘save it for your rest days’.

We’d all got changed in the locker room after a shift of dealing with crime, serving the public, comforting people, driving cars fast, saving lives, yadda yadda yadda; some of us may even have looked after a vulnerable woman in her 70s (not unlike Dame Shirl, but perhaps with less glitter) and off we went into the night looking like women – feminine women who can think for themselves.

I’m pretty sure my colleagues, who have just celebrated 100 years of women in policing, would have something to say to Dame Shirley. Female police officers do the job for many reasons, but it’s not political or feminist; it’s because they want to and, gosh, some of them are good at it.

I have family members, friends, mentors: all, essentially, really amazing women who are police officers in my life. They’re gorgeous and clever and they’re all an inspiration in very different ways. Saying that we shouldn’t aspire to be as clever as men is not only demeaning but you’re also going to upset quite a few people.

“I’ve seen women defuse situations where men have inflamed them and I’ve seen complicated and protracted investigations resolved by a leading female investigator. Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, anyone?”

I always wanted to be a police officer, a journalist or a pilot because they looked fun and pretty cool. “Better than a secretary”, as the careers advisor said. I actually nearly became a pilot because of British Airways actively encouraging women to join their scheme. Unfortunately, 9/11 happened and the course was stopped. The next time it came up I’d already forged a path as a police press officer and, now, entrepreneur. (There I go being all ‘clever’ again.)

Consider this: I was once told in hushed tones by a (male) police driving instructor that he preferred to teach women for their advanced permits because they were more sensible, willing to learn and didn’t have too much ego or need to prove a point – which ultimately made them safer. This rather counteracts Dame Shirley’s ‘unpredictable she-devil with PMT’ argument.

Christine Townsend 2

Watch out Dame Shirley: that purse could have police handcuffs in it.

I’ve seen women defuse situations where men have inflamed them (although I’ve also been attacked by a drunk woman with a stiletto) and I’ve seen complicated and protracted investigations resolved by a leading female investigator, a fact tat spills over into lots of TV detective dramas – Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, anyone?.

I’ve also seen women bravely pave the way for others by stepping up. These are clever women because they are, not because they try to be or choose to be. They just are. I know some pretty clever men and women but I also know some pretty stupid men and women in all of these jobs. It’s not about gender.

We’ve had the ‘women are not strong enough to be…’ argument but the ‘women should just be feminine because that’s how nature intended it’ line is incredibly reductive (and probably even sounds faintly ridiculous to women younger than me).

Mind you, if Dame Shirley were to become a diamante-clad Home Secretary the issue of cuts wouldn’t be a problem. She’d ditch over 28 per cent of police officers and 60 per cent of police staff in the UK.


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Written by Christine Townsend

Christine Townsend was a Special Constable for 10 years, while managing the media for the emergency services and various central Government departments. She recently set up MusterPoint, a social media management platform for the public sector and education. She also advises on crisis communications and regularly speaks about digital policing and social change. Often in a dress.